Using Study Guides

A study guide can be a great way to get some insight into what your professor might include on an exam. But, the question is: how do you actually use them to study?

The easiest way to use a study guide is as a way to structure your study notes. Generally speaking, these guides should give you some insight into the structure of the exam: will it be multiple choice? Short answer? Essay? Knowing the structure of the exam will help you organize your notes most effectively to study efficiently. So, some key tips and tricks for making the best use of your study guide:

  1. If it includes a key terms section, use this to make flash cards, or other memorization tool. In short, do something to rewrite all term definitions out.
  2. If it indicates that you will have any kind of free response (essay section), make outlines of information you will need to answer that question/question type. Generally speaking, outlines are easier to study from than written out paragraphs.
  3. If it indicates any problem types that you will need to solve, write out the process, including any needed formula. You should do this, even if the study guide includes sample problems for you to practice with.
  4. If your study guide is really vague (a “know everything” kind of format), ask your professor to walk you through the structure of the exam. Then, set up your notes according to the exam structure, rather than trying to memorize everything from a particular lesson or unit. (See steps 1-3 above).
  5. If your study guide is very very detailed (includes everything from the entirety of the semester), you may want to consider one of the following strategies: (a) typing up notes (faster than handwriting); (b) splitting organizing notes with a trusted peer and filling each other in

A few more key points:

  • Never ignore a study guide (if your professor took time to put one together, you should use it.
  • If your professor won’t tell you the structure of your exam (note: NOT content, but STRUCTURE) even after being asked, you have a right to be upset—include this on your end of course evaluations.
  • Sometimes a professor won’t issue a study guide. This is their prerogative. You aren’t entitled to one. I’ll discuss making your own in a later post (it is possible!). DON’T complain about this on end of course evals. You can—as always—suggest that it would be helpful.
  • Always ask your professor to clarify anything that is confusing or unclear about exam expectations. But do not expect them to spoon feed you the answers or content.

Close Reading Techniques: How to get all the information you need from assigned readings

A close reading is when you read the text for information, argument, and deeper meaning/details. In short, it’s the exact opposite of skimming. Close reading can be helpful when you are working on an assigned reading that you plan on using later for research, or one that you are planning on discussing in depth in class. There are a number of strategies you can use when doing a “close reading,” and I’ve listed some of the major ones below.

1. Make strategic use of highlighters

Many students have heard the phrase, if you are highlighting everything, you aren’t really highlighting anything. Over highlighting is a common mistake made by students when they try to do a close reading. There are a few ways to over come this problem.

Only highlight what you want to remember as a direct quote. This is the strategy that I use when I highlight my reading. This lets me pull out only the most important pieces of the text.

Use Multiple Colors: This strategy is helpful if there are different aspects of the text your want to remember for different reasons. For example, perhaps you want to identify several different arguments. Or, perhaps you want to highlight main ideas with one color and supporting facts with a second color. Another strategy is to highlight key terms in one color, conceptual ideas in a second, and important formulas with a third. If you use this strategy, the important thing to remember is to leave yourself some kind of key, so that you can easily return to the notes at a later time and understand what your rainbow effect means.

2. Annotate your reading

Annotation is just a fancy word that means take notes in the margins. There are two major things this strategy allows you to accomplish:

Summary of key points: When you annotate, you want to focus on summarizing key pieces of material in your own words. You can do this by writing directly on the document itself, or by using sticky notes. When I read, I do some of both. And, when I am reading a digital copy, I tend to put my summaries into digital sticky notes. The benefit of annotating a document this way is that you will be able to go back and get the gist of the argument (or major points) just by reading your annotations.

Adding your own thoughts/interpretations into your notes. Sometimes, when you read, you are able to connect it back to other things you’ve learned, to other things you’ve read, or you may be able to pass your own judgement on the validity of the argument. All of this counts as annotation as well. The benefit of this kind of annotation is that it allows you to remember the critiques you had of a piece when you review it later. An important key to using this kind of annotation is to keep it separate from any kind of summary annotations you make. Pick a different color pen, a different sticky note, or come up with a symbol (I use a #) to place in front of your own thoughts.

3. Create symbols to put in the margins.

Both highlighting and (especially) annotating are time consuming ways to do a close reading of a text. If you are also dealing with a large reading load, you may not have time to painstakingly write (or type) out your summary thoughts and ideas, and using a highlighter may cause you to over (or under) highlight passages. One way around this dilemma is to create a series of symbols to write into the text that are fast reminders about why a particular section is important. Perhaps you can throw an exclamation point next to a key piece of the argument, a question mark next to data you have an issue with, and draw a line down the side of a paragraph you think is particularly important evidence. You can circle key hypotheses, words, or formulas, and you can place a star next to key diagrams.

One benefit to this method is that it is not only a faster way to make notes while you read, but also lends itself well to marking lightly with pencil in books that you will need to erase at a later date (a text book you wish to sell back, or a library book).

4. Creating an abstract after finishing an article

A final strategy for a close reading is to create a short summary when you are done reading the selection. This method is one I used often in graduate school in order to cut through the large reading loads we were assigned. After I was done reading an article, I would try to summarize the main argument, key evidence and methodology in a few sentences to a short paragraph. For articles, I’d write this on the first page, above the title. When we returned to discuss the article in class, I’d have a quick reminder of the contents right away. For books, I’d summarize each chapter in this fashion. I use this method in conjunction with other strategies, but it is one that I find most helpful when returning to a text after any amount of time (even just two days) have passed. It is especially helpful if you are studying for exams and need to be able to cite readings from a course.

What other strategies do you use to take good notes while you are reading? Share in the comments below.

Writing Good Exam Responses

It’s nearly midterm season at my university. My students have all gotten their study guides and are busy preparing to sit for exams before they can flee the classroom for a well deserved fall break.

The perennial question that arises this time of year is what is a “good” exam response? What every student really wants to know is how to get that elusive and mysterious A on their test. Here are some basic tips and tricks for how to make sure that your exam answers are A+ material.

  1. Identify what the question is asking you.
  2. Answer the Question–no really!
  3. Prepare well, Write well and Use your time well

Recall Questions

Some questions will ask you to recall information. These types of questions usually start with the words who, what, where, or when. Recall questions are designed to test how well you comprehended the material you’ve been working on all semester. The professor wants to know how well you paid attention during lecture, whether or not you did the readings, and how well you understood what you heard/read.

Answering a recall question is relatively straight forward. Make sure that you provide a full accounting of the information that you are being asked. For example, if you are being asked about the three characteristics of a particular concept, like Democracy, make sure that you cover all three characteristics in your answer. It is also important to define the class vocabulary that you use. If you just use a buzzword from class, you aren’t letting the professor know that you know what it means.

Argument Questions

Another common type of question will ask you to make an argument. These types of questions will typically start with the words why, how, or the phrase under what conditions. Argument questions want you to take a side in a particular debate, and they test to see how well you can defend a particular position within this debate. For these types of questions, the professor wants to know two things. First, they want to know if you understood the two sides of the debate. Second, they want to see how well you can think through the arguments and counterarguments for each side of the debate.

Answering an argument question is pretty easy, once you know the formula to apply, so here it is. (1) Take a side. You MUST pick a side in the debate. If you don’t pick a side, you cannot make an argument. (2) Support your side using evidence. Why is the side you picked a good or reasonable answer to the question? You need to be able to answer this question in order to write a good exam answer for this type of question. (3) Acknowledge the other side of the debate. Here, you want to tell the reader what the other side thinks, and why they think that’s a good answer to the question. (4) Explain why your side is the better answer. In this section, you want to provide a counterargument for the other side, and reaffirm the side of the debate you picked. This really brings your argument home. And there it is: follow these steps and you’ve got yourself a strong “argument” question.

Application Questions

A final common type of question will ask you to apply the information you learned in class to a particular case or scenario. These types of questions will be about a particular event or refer to a specific case. Application questions often seem to be the most “out of left field” questions on tests, usually because students assume that these questions are asking them about an event/case that they didn’t study, so mid-exam panic ensues. The key to answering an application question is to figure out what information you are being asked to apply, and then to analyze the event using that information. For these questions, the professor is looking to see how well you can take the information you learned in class and use it to analyze and interpret it.

Like the recall question, to write a good response for an application question, you need to fully outline the information you are being asked to apply. Make sure you define any key terms that you use, fully outline the concepts, characteristics, steps, etc. of the information you are being asked to apply. Second, make sure that how you are applying the question is clear. Don’t make the mistake of trailing off on unimportant details about the case you are applying it to–use those details only as they are pertinent to how you are applying the information.

Prepare Well, Write Well, and Use your Time Well

Like any exam, midterms–especially essay exams, require good preparation. If you were given a study guide, put it to use. Make sure you understand how the test will be structured and graded ahead of time. And, organize your notes and readings so that you have all the information you need to study.

On the exam itself, make sure that you write well. Follow the basics: write in full sentences. Unless your professor explicitly says it’s all right, don’t use bullet points, abbreviations, or other writing short cuts (no “b/c” or “w/r/t”). Make sure that your ideas flow, and if it’s long enough, that you structure your answer into recognizable paragraphs.

Finally, make sure that you use your time well. Figure out how much time you can spend on each question of the exam ahead of time. Don’t waste time dithering about what questions to answer, and if you get stuck, come back to it. Importantly, leave yourself time to come back at the end and reread your answers all the way through. This will help you catch any errors, sentences that weren’t clear, or other mistakes or problems.

Study hard and good luck!

How to Pick a Research Topic

One of the biggest stumbling blocks I’ve run across in terms of students and selecting research topics for a course paper is that students do not feel like they know enough about the topic to select a topic early on in the course. This feeling is completely understandable! I get it! Many classes are “survey” courses, meant to introduce you to a new set of topics in the first place.

However, on the other side of the coin, research is a skill and an important one to practice in class, it takes time to do well so you can’t just work on it for the last week of the semester, and writing a research paper can help you engage with the class topic in a more in depth way (i.e. you get more out of it).

So how do we fix this problem?

One simple solution is to use the syllabus to help you narrow down your topic selection. The syllabus is going to outline the topics covered in the course and the assigned readings for each day. Peruse the syllabus to find a topic or two that you’ll be covering in the class that you think looks especially interesting. Then, read ahead to figure out if the topic is as interesting as it looks at first blush.

Another solution is to meet with your professor during office hours. Assuming you have a few very broad ideas in mind (if not, return to the previous paragraph), you can visit your professor during office hours to ask for help in narrowing down your topic selection. Some things to think about before stepping into their office: (1) Why did that broad area seem interesting? (2) How does this class relate to your major/career goals? (3) Is there a specific case/event/study that you read that sparked your focus in this direction? Being able to provide a little bit of extra context will help the professor help you narrow down your topic to something that you’ll actually enjoy working on for the remainder of the term.

A few other rules of thumb:

  • Don’t pick a topic you hate, or you’ll be in for a long, tough term.
  • Pick a topic as early as possible, if you hate it/cannot find enough information/etc. you can more easily switch topics.
  • Make sure you transition from a topic into a question about that topic fairly early on. All good research papers should answer a question.

4 Ways to Improve Your Writing

Writing is a necessary and important skill, regardless of what your major is, or what your career is likely to be. Here are 4 simple ways to improve your writing before turning in your next assignment.

1. Know Your Audience

Who is the intended audience for your writing? The answer is not simply–Duh, Dr. B. it’s the professor! Rather, think about the kind of writing assignment you are being asked to complete? Is it a research paper? A business proposal? Maybe it’s a blog post/op-ed or a report. Each of these kinds of assignments have a different intended audience. A research paper is going to be aimed at other people studying that same topic. A business proposal is intended to be read by potential investors. A blog post or op-ed is intended to be read by the general public. A report should be written with a specific person or group of people in mind.

Knowing your audience allows you to consider how to pitch your topic. If you are describing a concept or issue for the general public, you will want to avoid discipline or industry specific jargon. If you are writing for a specific group, you can think about what background information they already know versus what you need to explain to them. Keeping your audience in mind allows your writing to be more focused and more accessible.

2. Keep It Simple!

When writing, particularly about complex ideas, it is easy to get wrapped up in the details and dive into the really meaty sections right away. But that’s a big mistake. When you are describing a complex topic, you want to start by explaining it in the simplest way possible. By attempting to explain a concept/issue in the simplest way possible, you ensure that you get the full picture into the writing piece without missing anything important. Then, add details and more minutia as space (and the audience!) allow.

3. Start with an outline

As anyone who has ever had me in class will tell you, I LOVE outlines. That’s because an outline will help you capture all the main ideas you need to include in your writing and help you figure out in what order they are best presented.

When students attempt to write without an outline, they often end up meandering all over and never really get to the point. The argument can be hard to follow–if you can even find it, and it reads more like a stream of consciousness novel than an accessible piece of writing. The issue with diving right in sans outline is that it is going to make the writing hard to grade, and that’s likely going to cause you to end up with a lower grade!

4. Find a Proof Reader

One of the biggest mistakes students make when it comes to writing assignments is not rereading the paper before turning it in. At minimum, you need to reread your paper yourself. But a better solution is to find someone to read your paper over for you. The reason? When you write a paper, you can accidently miss typos, grammatical errors, or other pesky mistakes because you wrote it. The paper is in your “voice” and your brain inherently knows what you meant to say, even if that’s not what made it onto the page. Getting a second set of eyes to read over your work means you’re less likely to turn in a mistake filled paper. BONUS: proof readers do not have to have any truly special qualities beyond being able to read at a college level and not being you–so go ahead, ask your mom!

The Critical Benefit of Flash Cards

Flash cards are 100% old school. They can also 100% work. Here’s how.

When to use them

Flash cards are best used when you have to memorize something. In my how to write good exam answers blog post, I discuss three different types of exam questions: the recall, the argument, and the application. Flash cards work best for exams that have recall questions: these are the right/wrong objective evaluation type questions.

Why to use them

Flash cards can help you in two ways. First, the very act of making the flash cards is a review in an of itself–assuming you are writing out the flash cards by hand. When you physically write out information, you are engaging both your visual and kinesthetic learning areas. Second, reviewing the flash cards, especially if you can answer yourself aloud, also engages two learning centers: your visual and your auditory. In short, flash cards can help you get the information into your brain twice.

How to use them

The most effective way to use flash cards is by drilling. Flipping through them over and over until you know the answer to each prompt. In order to speed up the memorization process, I would recommend filtering out the ones you get right as you go through them so that the ones you are not as clear on get extra face-time. This will cut down on the total amount of time you spend studying. However, it’s always good to end with a final go through of ALL the cards.

Tips for Improving Class Notes

Taking notes in class can be a challenge. Figuring out what to get down, making sure that you have access to the resources you need, and the eternal struggle of the professor flipping through the lecture slides at breakneck speed all add up to a frustrating experience when trying to figure out how to take notes. Here are a few easy ways to improve your class notes.

1. Take Handwritten Notes

One of the first recommendations I make to students at the beginning of each course is that they consider taking handwritten notes. Often, students think that taking notes on a computer is an easy way to fix several of of the class note problems discussed above. Most of us (myself included) can type far faster than we can write by hand, alleviating the fear of missing getting down an important point. Typed notes can be cleaner than handwritten ones, making studying down the road easier. Typed notes can also let you have up multiple resources at once on your screen: you can even take notes directly into the powerpoint slides, assuming your professor handed them out before the lecture. So why do I persist in trying to convince my students to take notes by hand? It’s not because I’m anti-computer, or computer illiterate. It’s because research shows that taking handwritten notes can get you better grades.

When you handwrite your notes, you have to figure out exactly what is important enough to write down because you cannot write as fast as the professor is speaking. That additional mental step, which can often also mean writing down the lecture in your own words, has been found to improve student recall of class material over students who typed their notes. In short, handwriting notes keeps you more engaged with the lecture because you have to work a little harder. But the payoff is that you’re likely to do better come exam time.

Don’t take my word for it, here’s an article about the research in Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

But, sometimes, handwriting notes simply isn’t an option: maybe you need to have access to the internet for class resources and the desk area is limited, maybe your handwriting is worse than chicken scratch. Whatever the reason, there are better and worse ways to use technology to take notes.

2. Do make good use of new technologies

Some of the new tablet options are really awesome when it comes to blending technology with class note taking. If your handwriting could star in a horror film, you may want to look into features like the ability to turn your handwriting into typed notes. This kind of feature would allow you to reap the benefits of taking notes by hand while allowing you to make them readable down the line. It’s also probably going to force you to review your notes, so win-win.

Another cool feature you could consider is the sharing functions in programs like Google Docs or the online versions of Microsoft. Shared notes are a neat way to see what others picked out as important, and has the potential of giving you a more complete version of notes. This isn’t ideal in every situation, however, so tread with caution.

3. Don’t take down a transcript of the lecture

DON’T: try to take down a verbatim transcript of what your professor is saying. Remember the above tip about how processing the information while in class helps you later on? When we type up verbatim transcripts, we have a tendency to “check out” mentally. Believe it or not, we can actually take down every word someone is saying pretty passively.

Along these same lines, I’d avoid trying to take notes into the notes section of an existing powerpoint, especially if the powerpoint is text heavy. You’ll end up passively listening to the lecture and note writing down anything because it’s already written down for you.

4. Try using a split screen

Split screens have the advantage of allowing you to move around the lecture slides independently of the professor, but still give you space to write out your notes in a clean document. This can be helpful in a number of ways. First, it allows you to take notes more actively, since you will likely be recopying at least some of the information from the lecture slides. Second, it allows you to control the lecture slides independently from the professor. If they skip through slides too quickly, you can flip back briefly in order to make note of what you need to fill in your notes later.

5. Avoid the temptation to have open multiple non-class related windows. 

When you are not actively taking notes or using your laptop for class purposes, the professor totally knows. How, you may ask? The two main ways come from how you are using your keyboard. Like it or not, keyboards make noise. If you are typing at a time when no one else is chances are you are probably working on an assignment for another class or sending an email. If you are not typing when everyone else is, but you’re still staring intently at the computer, chances are you’re browsing some kind of social media site. So even if the professor cannot see your screen, they have ways of knowing whether or not you are engaged in the material. I can firmly attest to this, both as a professor, and as a student who has definitely gotten called on while browsing a non-class related website. THEY KNOW, and it won’t make them happy.

So, how do you avoid this kind of temptation? Obviously, using a notebook and not a laptop is the easiest solution. However, the split screen recommendation can also aid in keeping you focused on just the screens that you need to be looking at. Other options include turning off notifications (if you don’t know there’s an update, you’ll be less likely to check it), or installing a focus browser extension (personally, I’ve had good luck with Stay Focused, a Chrome extension, but there are multiple options out there).

Ultimately, there’s no perfect way to take notes in class. These are simply some of the biggest techniques and stumbling blocks that I’ve seen and experienced. What are some tips and tricks you’ve used for better class note taking?

 

A Guide to Reading Academic Articles: The Research Article and the Review Article

Unlike textbooks, academic articles can be hard to read. They are: long, dry, unnecessarily complicated, and sometimes bury the lead. In short, it can be hard to figure out what you are supposed to get out of reading an article for class. This is the first in a series of posts that explores how to successfully tackle the academic articles on your reading list. Each post will cover a few

There are actually several different kinds of articles you might be assigned to read for class. But regardless of what kind of article you are tackling, there are two key steps to reading academic articles:

Step 1: Identify the article type

Identifying the type of article you’re reading can go a long way towards figuring out what your professor wants you to get out the reading assignment. Specifically, knowing the type of article gives you insight into what the author was trying to accomplish by writing the article and in turn, it lets you grab onto the main ideas from the article.

Step 2: Identifying the Key Takeaways

Once you know the goal of the article, you can ask yourself a few key questions about what the author was trying to communicate through the paper. Because each article type has a slightly different goal, you’re going to want to ask slightly different questions for each article type.

In this post, I’ll be going over two of the more common types of articles you’ll find (regardless of your field–physical science, social science, or humanities).

The Research Article

By far the most prevalent type of academic article, the research article is a write up of results from a research project conducted by the author. These types of articles can be identified by their focus on something new: new data, new results, or new application. The goal of a research article is to communicate this new finding to the scholarly community.

To pull out the key information from this kind of article, you’ll want to ask yourself these three questions as you read:

1. What question(s) was the author(s) trying to answer?

2. What did the author(s) argue? (i.e. what was their theory? Or what was their answer to the question?)

Note: often authors will review how other scholars have answered this question in the past–kind of like a critique. Don’t get confused by this. Their answer will usually be pretty obvious through phrasing: “We argue that…” or “This paper suggests that..” etc.

3. How did the author(s) support their argument? What evidence did they use? How did they test their argument to see if they were right?

The Review Article

Review articles are papers that can show you how other scholars answer the same question using different theories (or different answers). These types of articles are great for helping you understand how other scholars agree or disagree. A review article will always present you with two or more sides to an argument and often present themselves as a “state of the discipline” type piece.

To pull out the key information from this kind of article, you’ll want to ask yourself these three questions as you read:

1. What question is the author discussing?

2. How does the author present the different theories (different explanations) by the different authors? How does the author sort the different articles into different groups?

3. What specific theories fit into each section? (Bonus points if you can summarize each of these into one sentence!)

In the next post, I’ll discuss two other types of articles that you’re likely to stumble across: the case study and the book chapter.

Writing Good Exam Responses

It’s nearly midterm season at my university. My students have all gotten their study guides and are busy preparing to sit for exams before they can flee the classroom for a well deserved fall break.

The perennial question that arises this time of year is what is a “good” exam response? What every student really wants to know is how to get that elusive and mysterious A on their test. Here are some basic tips and tricks for how to make sure that your exam answers are A+ material.

  1. Identify what the question is asking you.
  2. Answer the Question–no really!
  3. Prepare well, Write well and Use your time well

Recall Questions

Some questions will ask you to recall information. These types of questions usually start with the words who, what, where, or when. Recall questions are designed to test how well you comprehended the material you’ve been working on all semester. The professor wants to know how well you paid attention during lecture, whether or not you did the readings, and how well you understood what you heard/read.

Answering a recall question is relatively straight forward. Make sure that you provide a full accounting of the information that you are being asked. For example, if you are being asked about the three characteristics of a particular concept, like Democracy, make sure that you cover all three characteristics in your answer. It is also important to define the class vocabulary that you use. If you just use a buzzword from class, you aren’t letting the professor know that you know what it means.

Argument Questions

Another common type of question will ask you to make an argument. These types of questions will typically start with the words why, how, or the phrase under what conditions. Argument questions want you to take a side in a particular debate, and they test to see how well you can defend a particular position within this debate. For these types of questions, the professor wants to know two things. First, they want to know if you understood the two sides of the debate. Second, they want to see how well you can think through the arguments and counterarguments for each side of the debate.

Answering an argument question is pretty easy, once you know the formula to apply, so here it is. (1) Take a side. You MUST pick a side in the debate. If you don’t pick a side, you cannot make an argument. (2) Support your side using evidence. Why is the side you picked a good or reasonable answer to the question? You need to be able to answer this question in order to write a good exam answer for this type of question. (3) Acknowledge the other side of the debate. Here, you want to tell the reader what the other side thinks, and why they think that’s a good answer to the question. (4) Explain why your side is the better answer. In this section, you want to provide a counterargument for the other side, and reaffirm the side of the debate you picked. This really brings your argument home. And there it is: follow these steps and you’ve got yourself a strong “argument” question.

Application Questions

A final common type of question will ask you to apply the information you learned in class to a particular case or scenario. These types of questions will be about a particular event or refer to a specific case. Application questions often seem to be the most “out of left field” questions on tests, usually because students assume that these questions are asking them about an event/case that they didn’t study, so mid-exam panic ensues. The key to answering an application question is to figure out what information you are being asked to apply, and then to analyze the event using that information. For these questions, the professor is looking to see how well you can take the information you learned in class and use it to analyze and interpret it.

Like the recall question, to write a good response for an application question, you need to fully outline the information you are being asked to apply. Make sure you define any key terms that you use, fully outline the concepts, characteristics, steps, etc. of the information you are being asked to apply. Second, make sure that how you are applying the question is clear. Don’t make the mistake of trailing off on unimportant details about the case you are applying it to–use those details only as they are pertinent to how you are applying the information.

Prepare Well, Write Well, and Use your Time Well

Like any exam, midterms–especially essay exams, require good preparation. If you were given a study guide, put it to use. Make sure you understand how the test will be structured and graded ahead of time. And, organize your notes and readings so that you have all the information you need to study.

On the exam itself, make sure that you write well. Follow the basics: write in full sentences. Unless your professor explicitly says it’s all right, don’t use bullet points, abbreviations, or other writing short cuts (no “b/c” or “w/r/t”). Make sure that your ideas flow, and if it’s long enough, that you structure your answer into recognizable paragraphs.

Finally, make sure that you use your time well. Figure out how much time you can spend on each question of the exam ahead of time. Don’t waste time dithering about what questions to answer, and if you get stuck, come back to it. Importantly, leave yourself time to come back at the end and reread your answers all the way through. This will help you catch any errors, sentences that weren’t clear, or other mistakes or problems.

Study hard and good luck!

Keeping Up and Keeping Organized

This last week, I had conversations with two of my students who were discussing the problems they were having keeping up and keeping organized. One of them told me how he was struggling with procrastination. The lure of being social in the dorms, at the library, and between classes was keeping him from working on projects, leaving him to pull all nighters at the last minute. The other told me that she was taking extra credit hours and in an attempt to keep everything organized had created what she termed a “master syllabus,” a massive, color coded document a la Hermione Granger.

As we move farther into the semester, the pressure to keep up and keep organized can become more and more stressful. Here’s the advice I gave my students. Hopefully it’ll help you too.

Procrastination Struggles

Often, the problem that you face when you find yourself procrastinating is that you know you have a lot to do, but none of it is due immediately. It’s a catch 22: if you don’t start now, you won’t finish, but the deadline doesn’t seem pressing yet–you feel like you’ve got plenty of time. So, you put it off and put it off, and put it off. And then all of a sudden, you’ve got 24 hours and a 10 page paper due. Not ideal. So what’s the solution? Many students I’ve talked to have told me that it’s not that they don’t want to start. They do. And it’s not that they don’t know they need to start to get done. They do. The issue is getting started and keeping it manageable.

 

The solution is to break down the big projects and assignments into smaller, shorter tasks.  When you break big tasks down, they seem more manageable. You don’t have to write a 10 page paper today, you just have to pick your question. You don’t have to do all the research for your paper, today you just have to find 5 articles.

Tackling a smaller task can help you overcome the psychological challenge of getting started. The project is now a small task that can be done in time to go to the club meeting or to watch the newest episode of Game of Thrones.

When you break down the project into smaller pieces, you can also plot out what you need to get done each day so that between the time you get the assignment and the time it’s due, you’ve gotten it all done and it hasn’t seemed too overwhelming to begin.

Another of the tactics I used to use when I was in school was to plan it out so that I would finish a paper the day before it was due, giving me enough time to read through it one last time. Adding in a buffer also lets gives you time to deal with any last minute emergencies, like the library hours changing without you knowing, or the internet going down.

Keeping Organized

Even if you aren’t prone to procrastination, having a lot on your plate can leave you feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. In semesters where you have a lot on your plate, there are a few things that you can do to keep you on task and feeling like you are conquering the world.

First, invest in a good planner and use it. Whether its digital or paper, having a planner is essential if you have a lot on your plate. Your brain (no matter how brilliant you are) is not good at storing all the information you need in your short term memory. Writing it down allows you to focus more clearly on the really important things on your schedule. It also means you are less likely to forget items on your to do list.

Second, make sure that you plan in some fun time and some down time. Working really hard at academics is just like being a hard core athlete: you need recovery time. It’s tempting to think that because we are studying and not working physically we shouldn’t get tired, but that’s definitely not the case. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up burnt out and doing poorly on tasks that should be easy. Get enough sleep, remember to hit the gym (or spend time outdoors) and do something fun at least once a week.

Third, know when you’ve reached your limit. Don’t sink your GPA just because you *should* be able to do this schedule or you *should* be able to pass this class. It’s one thing to push yourself hard and it’s another to end up failing a class.  It’s far better to drop a class you’re going to fail and have a W on your transcript than an F.

Good luck, study hard, and be sure to share your study hacks in the comments below!